Driving Dustin Johnson to be the top golfer in the world

Art Whisnant, grandfather of professional golfer Dustin Johnson, poses for a photo with a set of clubs given to him by his grandson, at his Lake Murray home Tuesday.
Art Whisnant, grandfather of professional golfer Dustin Johnson, poses for a photo with a set of clubs given to him by his grandson, at his Lake Murray home Tuesday.

In 2013, South Carolina Electric & Gas lowered Lake Murray nearly 10 feet in an effort to improve the long-term water quality. Behind Art Whisnant’s house, on the northeast side of the lake, the drawdown exposed yards of lake bottom, which meant it was time for Whisnant to get to work.

“I bet you there was 6,000, 8,000 golf balls out in the lake,” Whisnant said. “There were golf balls everywhere. I picked up golf balls till I was sick of picking up golf balls. I had bags full of golf balls. They were everywhere. I quit picking them up.”

The golf balls were deposited in Lake Murray years ago by Whisnant’s grandson, who still comes by from time to time and drives balls into the lake. Nobody’s going to find the ones he’s hitting these days, though.

Whisnant’s grandson is Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 golfer in the world and the favorite to win this year’s Masters Tournament, which begins Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club. It must be weird for Whisnant’s neighbors, who are all packed tightly around the cove, to see one of the most famous athletes in the world teeing off from the backyard across the way.

“They probably don’t even know him,” Whisnant said.

It’s hard to imagine anyone doesn’t know Johnson by now. He is the hottest and the best golfer in the world at the moment. In his past 25 starts, Johnson has one major victory (the 2016 U.S. Open), three World Golf Championship titles, six wins, 12 top-three finishes and 19 top 10-finishes.

“Dustin’s a killer athlete. He just has natural talent, I always said if he practiced 40 hours a week like a regular job, there isn’t anybody on planet Earth that can beat him,” said Whisnant, Johnson’s maternal grandfather.

Johnson likely caught the golf bug from his father, Scott Johnson, a one-time PGA professional at the Mid-Carolina Club. But it was Whisnant who carried him to most of his junior golf tournaments, walking the course to follow his grandson’s game at every one of them. He hasn’t done the math to figure out how many holes he’s walked in his life.

“Oh, I’ve got no idea,” he said. “We went to every tournament we could get to, every summer was junior tournaments all over everywhere.”

That led to standout careers at Irmo and Dutch Fork high schools and then Coastal Carolina University, where he’s a member of the athletics hall of fame, and now to the pinnacle of the sport. Along the way, his grandfather has been one of his biggest fans.

Whisnant rarely played golf with his grandson. His first love is basketball. An All-ACC center at South Carolina from 1959-62, he averaged 21 points per game his senior season and went on to coach youth travel teams in the state. While Dustin gravitated toward golf, his younger brother Austin starred for Whisnant’s basketball teams and went on to play at Charleston Southern, where Whisnant didn’t miss a game.

“I pushed (Austin) into basketball,” Whisnant said. “I wish like anything in the world I had known golf was going to be what it is. If I had pushed Austin into golf, he’d be on the tour today.”

Austin is on the PGA Tour now as Dustin’s caddy, which isn’t a bad job considering Dustin’s career earnings of $47.1 million. Dustin Johnson couldn’t be reached for comment for this story. Both Johnson boys were multi-sport athletes, and the 6-foot-4 Whisnant still wonders what the 6-4 Dustin could have been if he had focused on basketball.

“He was into basketball, baseball. He can run and jump. He’d snatch a rebound and take it back down the court and beat everybody back down the court,” Whisnant said. “I don’t know, he just started playing golf, and I guess he liked it.”

That meant a lot of days being driven to the course and tournaments. Lots of time, it was Whisnant doing the driving. Johnson’s parents divorced when he was young. He remains close with both, but especially tight with his grandfather, who visited him at his home in Jupiter, Fla., two weeks ago and had dinner with him again last week in Augusta, where Dustin was playing practice rounds for the Masters.

While Whisnant was in Florida, he joined Dustin and friends on a sail fishing trip that took the group to water in front of Johnson’s neighbor’s house, which is now guarded by the Coast Guard. Dustin lives down the coast from Mar-a-Lago, the beach estate of President Donald Trump.

Dustin and President Trump are more than just neighbors. The golf-loving politician has joined the Johnson brothers for at least one round of golf, and Dustin and President Trump each have the other’s cell phone number, Whisnant said.

“They talk all the time,” Whisnant said. “Trump called him up on Thanksgiving and asked him to come over for dinner.”

Dustin, who calls Whisnant “Pop,” showers his grandfather with gifts from his sponsors – including TaylorMade golf clubs and Adidas shoes – and from other sites. Whisnant has several pair of Ferragamos, Italian loafers that start at around $500 per pair.

“I couldn’t afford them Ferragamos if it wasn’t for Dustin,” Whisnant said. “And then Pradas. And then the tennis shoes. He gets shoes that don’t hit the market from Adidas. They’ve got some killer shoes. I was down there last week, he gave me 10 pair of Adidas.”

Whisnant knows Dustin would love to win this week’s Masters, but he can’t tell that it’s any more important than any of the sport’s other majors despite its proximity to his hometown. Johnson doesn’t exactly wear his heart on his sleeve, his grandfather said.

“Nothing bothers him,” Whisnant said. “From a kid up, I’ve never seen him mad in my lifetime, ever. Just calm, cool, collected, go with the flow. Never wanted to fight, never wanted to do nothing.”

That demeanor has served him well through a career that has seen him receive a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in what he didn’t realize was a bunker on the final regulation hole of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2010, three-putt away the 2015 U.S. Open and even get a ball stuck in an oak tree.

Whisnant never saw him rattle during any of those episodes. His grandfather is less reserved.

“I’d have been ready to kill somebody when they gave him that two-stroke penalty for grounding that club up at Whistling Straits,” Whisnant said. “If I’d have been there, they’d still be quoting me in the paper.”

Folks might be quoting him this week from Augusta, where he’ll try to brave what probably will be the tournament’s biggest galleries to follow along with his grandson for 36 and hopefully 72 holes.

“If he didn’t play, I wouldn’t walk across the street to go the Masters,” Whisnant said. “It’s a pretty place for as far as spectators, but there are only a few holes you can see him.”

He’ll be there, though, just like always.